The COVID-19 health crisis and inequalities in post-school education in South Africa

The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic led South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to declare a national state of disaster on Sunday, 15 March 2020. In response to the announcement, tertiary education institutions and student residences around the country closed in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. These institutions were required to come up with remote teaching and learning solutions in a relatively short period of time. While virtual classes on personal tablets may have become the global norm, many South African students lacked access to internet and data connectivity, and relied on shared or mobile devices off which to learn. In addition, glaring structural inequalities plagued a multitude of socio-economic factors in South Africa. These factors shaped the household environment to which many students returned, and in which they were expected to learn new academic material. Household access to electricity, a stable internet connection and a suitable device off which to learn, would have dictated the quality of students’ remote learning. Subsequently, the quality of remote learning is likely to have impacted student outcomes and the composition of the student body in the tertiary education system.

While COVID-19 affected all levels of education in South Africa, our research focused on post-school education. Typically, on-campus learning and living presents a way – albeit imperfect – of equalising access to resources for students from various backgrounds. This is not possible under remote learning. Therefore, existing household inequalities are likely to have further disadvantaged students in this time.

Research questions:

  • What do measures of student-body household and community characteristics at different institutions tell us about within and between institution inequalities in the post-school education system; and how are these important in designing remote teaching and learning solutions?
  • What has been the impact of remote learning during COVID-19 on student outcomes, and are students on financial aid disproportionately affected? How does this vary for students attending different institutions?
  • How did the shift to remote learning during students’ final year of secondary school disrupt the composition of students applying to and enrolling in tertiary education institutions in the subsequent academic year(s)?

Principal investigators Nicola Branson and Vimal Ranchhod were joined by Emma Whitelaw and Samantha Culligan in the production of output for this project.

This project was funded by the Spencer foundation, August 2020-July 2023.

Read key insights from the project here.


Project outputs

SALDRU Working Papers:

Whitelaw, E., Branson, N., and Leibbrandt, M. (2023). Learning in lockdown: University students’ academic performance during COVID-19 closures. (SALDRU Working Paper No. 289. Version 2).

Branson, N., Ranchhod, V., and Whitelaw, E. (2023a). South African student retention during 2020: Evidence from system-wide institutional data. (SALDRU Working Paper No. 300).

Branson, N., Ranchhod, V., and Whitelaw, E. (2023b). What can we understand about learning loss in 2020 from university application and enrolment data? (SALDRU Working Paper No. 301).


Other project outputs:

Whitelaw, E., Culligan, S., and Branson, N. (2020). Student ability to learn at home: An introductory look at student access to remote learning resources.

Whitelaw, E., Culligan, S., and Branson, N. (2020). Students will return on an unequal footing because of poor remote-learning access, Daily Maverick. 27 September.

Branson, N., and Whitelaw, E. (2022). When campuses close: Using institutional data to unpack South African university students’ enrolment and performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, SALDRU. 31 August.

Culligan, S. (2022). Using census, institutional and geospatial data to estimate the socio-economic profile of post-school students by institutional type (Master’s thesis). University of Cape Town. South Africa